A Parable of Compassion: I Met Rho Gi-wan by Cho Haejin

  • onAugust 1, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byAnastasia A. Guryeva
Я встретила Ро Кивана(I Met Rho Gi-wan)
Tr. Lee Sang Yoon and Kim Hwan

Cho Haejin’s I Met Rho Gi-wan can meet various kinds of readers’ expectations and draw interest of those who seek tasteful reading, as well as those who wish to explore human psychology, or even those who position books as bearers of eternal values.

The plot features several interwoven storylines centered around two main figures: a North Korean refugee named Rho Gi-wan, and the narrator, a South Korean scriptwriter who comes across Rho’s interview and decides to travel to Belgium to meet him. Both characters enter the story through personal tragedy. The narrator runs away from Seoul blaming herself for possibly causing the progression of a young girl’s disease whom she happened to be caring for. Rho Gi-wan goes to Europe after his mother’s death using the money he gained for her body, morally destroyed by what he did to survive.

Today people are usually aware of North Korean issues and the refugee situation, yet this novel offers a new approach to these problems through Korean speci f ics of emotion and representation. Unhackneyed metaphors enrich the vivid and poignant imagery, along with non-intrusive means to maintain subtle intrigue, as well as space and musical associations—all which convey common concerns in a particular and personalized way.

Secondar y characters present even more issues for readers to think about becoming a sort of catalyst for philosophical renderings in the text. Among the many issues the author touches upon—the social and moral ones are presented in abundance—ranging from euthanasia, charity, creative work or romantic relationships, to conscience and the psychology of getting over a loss or hunger. Each issue is discussed with careful attention to such personal aspects as loneliness, sincerity, or compassion.

Though the story keeps shifting to the narrator’s world with her complicated interrelations with others, its dynamics are realized mostly on the streets of Europe, where the narrator roams as she follows Rho Gi-wan’s diary. In a way, this book echoes Patrick Modiano’s novel Dora Bruder with the narrator on a quest for the invisible tracks of a girl who died in a concentration Nazi camp as he walks the streets of contemporary Paris. While Modiano makes connections between careless contemporary times and the forgotten tragic fates of World War II, Cho Haejin calls for our attention to tragedies that may be invisible right beside us, regardless of political background.

In Korean literature, wandering typically serves as a means for the protagonist to find the self. Rho Giwan’s wandering indirectly brings several people to peace with themselves and helps restore their tattered relations. The driving motives in this “road-book” are based on the conflicts the protagonists face (disappointment, hypocrisy, and open indifference), but as the story progresses, they gradually come to an inner and outer harmony.

Translators of the novel into Russian, Lee Sang Yoon and Kim Hwan, did their best to convey the author’s gentle style and manner of speaking about serious things without anguish. Lee Sang Yoon shares that they were inspired by the humanism of the story, and its appeal to readers to be attentive to people around us, as there may be many Rho Gi-wans we meet.

Prose of the late twentieth century was inhabited with anonymous protagonists , symbolizing their generalized characters and dissociated people. This novel illustrates a recent trend—a name becoming part of the title (e.g. My Sister Bongsoon by Gong Ji-Young, Lee Jin by Shin Kyung-sook). Names are meaningful in Cho’s novel: the narrator’s full name remains unknown to readers, while other characters attain names gradually, yet Rho Gi-wan comes into the story fully introduced from the outset. The novel itself becomes a process of changing him from an official and sensible “R” (surname) in the first phrase of the book into a tender and intimate “G” (given name) in the last sentence. And this is a process of turning this humiliated, ignored, and lost figure into a content and happy person with new roads to travel that he needn’t travel alone.

It is almost an except ion for contemporary Korean prose not to end tragically, but in this novel it is hope that plays the final chord, opening new perspectives for overcoming—overcoming the status of alien, a fatal illness, or misunderstandings of the past. Harmony as a conclusion for the story is one of the best ways the author could choose to formulate an antithesis for hostility and indifference, which unite politically grounded and personal dramas in the text. In a sense, this novel develops other contemporaries’ plots, where protagonists strive for reconciliation with the self. Seemingly setting these personal issues in a political context, Cho Haejin still speaks about the value of people and their relationships under any historical circumstance. 



by Anastasia A. Guryeva
Associate Professor
St. Petersburg State University

Author's Profile

Cho Haejin (b.1976) debuted when she won the New Writer’s Awards and was published by the quarterly magazine Munye Joongang in 2006. She authored the short story collection City of Angels and the novels I Met Lo Kiwan and A Forest That No One Has Seen.